Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has its eye on Islamic banking
CAIRO -- When Hassan Banna, a young Egyptian schoolteacher and Islamic preacher, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, his goal was to create a free state based on social justice and religion that would follow Islam’s sacred law, or sharia.
The Brotherhood’s aim today appears to be to gradually instill law on public policy. But its more immediate concern is to implement Islamic banking and finance to fix Egypt’s economy, which has been battered by years of corruption and more recently by unrest and big losses in tourism and foreign investment.
“Most of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders are too pragmatic to apply a fundamentalist Islamic state,” said Ashraf Sherif, adjunct political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “They don't have the funds to institutionalize radical social change like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries, and at the same time, it’s not feasible in Egypt.”
The Brotherhood faced a severe setback Thursday when a constitutional court ruled that the Islamic-dominated parliament be dissolved because one-third of the chamber’s members were unlawfully elected. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood will likely be prominent in a new parliament and its power may further expand if its candidate Mohamed Morsi wins this weekend’s presidential runoff.
But the Brotherhood’s economic policies may run counter to demands for social justice and better living conditions for Egypt’s poor.
“Their economic doctrine is not really attentive to social justice; it is very right-wing capitalist,” Sherif said. “They aren’t interested in any social restructuring that can be disruptive to this, especially in Egypt, because there are liberals who are widely represented in the economy.”
With its ability to mobilize from the grass roots, the Brotherhood was long a powerful Islamic movement and a threat to the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was forced out of office during last year’s popular uprising.
The Brotherhood for decades was given limited access to an economy controlled by Mubarak’s ruling party and well-connected businessmen. Brotherhood leaders such as Hassan Malek and Khairat Shater were jailed under Mubarak but ran corporations that focused on work ethics embodied in the sharia to turn the Brotherhood into one of the wealthiest movements in the Arab world.
Naturally, the Brotherhood members say they aspire to implement sharia in everyday life, including rules for banking, women’s rights, marital laws and work ethics. However, as a utilitarian political movement, the Brotherhood’s interests, which are integrated in the world’s economy, will dictate their decisions.
Tarek Farahat, head of external affairs for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said sharia will be more applied in Egyptian society, especially when it comes to judicial law or the country’s finance policies. Article 2 of Egypt’s Constitution states that sharia is the official law of the land.
“Sharia is supposed to be the background of the law, but the principles were not applied. Now we truly want to apply sharia,” he said. “Christians wanted another article to guarantee their rights and we have no problem with this.”
But he stressed the importance of Islamic finance , which doesn’t charge interest on loans and limits monetary speculation, and Egypt’s integration with the world’s economy: “We need to make a kind of cooperation with countries like the U.S. for the benefit of the entire region,” he said.
Farahat added that the Muslim Brotherhood hopes to institutionalize Islamic finance in banks across Egypt but would also leave the current banking system available to those who still wish to use it.
“They want to restructure the society, but for now, it is nothing more than hoping to apply a business-focused free market, which is close to the Republican Party’s view of the economy,” Sherif said.
“The Islamic economy is nothing more than a faith-based economy which focuses on the morals of the people," he added. "Tactically it's very integrated within the international capitalist economy, and this is what they want.”
-- Reem Abdellatif
Photo: The Muslim Brotherhood hopes to expand its power if its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, shown at a news conference on Wednesday, wins this weekend's election. Credit: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images.